With the regular season set to tip off on Oct.18, let’s take a
look at where each team in the Southeast Division stands. We’ll
break down what to like, what to be concerned about, a lineup to
watch and a reasonable range for them to finish in the standings.
(If you've missed them, read our season previews for the Atlantic Division, Northwest Division, Central Division and Pacific Division.)
And for deeper thoughts on the Southeast Division, you can
listen to the latest episode of The
WHAT TO LIKE: STAR BACKCOURT
Aside from Steph Curry, is there a point guard (not you, Luka) you'd rather
build an offense around than Trae Young?
His blend of pull-up shooting, intermediate scoring,
foul-drawing and playmaking is virtually unheard of. He became the
first player since Nate "Tiny" Archibald to lead the NBA in total
points and assists in the same season. You don't really
stop Young more than you hope his teammates mess up
when he doesn't have the ball.
And that's what makes the trade for Dejounte Murray so
Young doesn't have to be the offense anymore;
he can just be the leader of it. Murray can also shoulder a heavy
offensive burden thanks to his playmaking, downhill guile and
budding pull-up chops — inside the arc, anyway.
In Murray, the Hawks finally have a second player who can
consistently get two feet in the paint. That should open up
catch-and-shoot opportunities for Young, a rarity
over the past couple of seasons.
- He can't keep himself out of trade rumors, but John Collins is
very good at basketball. He's one of the most dynamic screening
partners in the league — a violent above-the-rim threat and a dude
who has drained over 40% of his above-the-break threes in two of
the past three seasons.
- Big, big fan of Onyeka Okongwu. Quietly,
he and Young torched teams in ball screens; the Hawks generated
over 1.10 points per possession (PPP) on trips featuring a
Young-Okongwu PnR, the seventh-best mark among 107 duos with at
least 300 picks. Add in his ability to defend in space, and it
shouldn't be a surprise that I'm all in.
- I am here for Jalen Johnson minutes at the 4. Don't rob me of
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: SPACING & LINEUP
The Hawks have done their best to surround Young with the kind
of defensive talent he needs. A stout rim protector in Clint
Capela, a power-wing defender in De'Andre Hunter, a guard-hounding
menace in Murray. The problem is that defenses don't treat any of
them as real shooting threats. They're in a weird spot where it
feels like they have two-way talent, but not enough 3-and-D
Finding the combinations that'll help unlock their star guards
without bleeding points will be Nate McMillan's toughest
- It didn't seem like much of an issue during the preseason, but
it's worth keeping an eye on the Young-Murray dynamic. Where Murray
is spaced when he doesn't have the ball — and how he counters teams
gapping him — will drive a good bit of the Hawks' half-court
success against good defenses.
- Is this the year that Collins can comfortably hold down the 5?
He's made strides every season, but the Hawks are still leaky —
and an overall minus — when he's
the only big on the floor.
- On a similar note, is this the year that Okongwu is fully
ready to anchor lineups at the 5? I'm not sure yet. It would
certainly be helpful if he is; that would mitigate some of my
LINEUP TO WATCH:
This could end up being the closing group if Collins takes
another step defensively. In theory, the Hawks can be in spread
pick-and-roll heaven with Collins at the 5. Young or Murray should
feast in that setup, and even Bogdan Bogdanovic could get
BEST CASE: No. 4 Seed
This is a talented group, headlined by an
All-NBA-caliber guard and a ball-hawking All-Star in his own right.
With good health from Capela and Hunter, there's room for the
defense to get to average this year. With Young being an offense
onto himself, that formula could be enough for the Hawks to rack up
WORST CASE: Play-In Tournament
Injury woes aside, there are enough spacing and defensive
concerns for the Hawks to fall right back into the 7-10 range. Add
in the injury woes, and a top-six finish doesn't seem likely.
WHAT TO LIKE: LAMELO BALL & ERIC
There are maybe five players who are more electric, more
exciting than LaMelo Ball. He's an inventive passer, willing to
throw 45-foot lobs, 80-foot underhanded scoops, and no-look darts
to cutters or waiting shooters. Oh, and he'll pull-up from 30 on
you and do so with a smile.
Frankly, there isn't a more energetic announcer than Eric
Collins. When there's a thunderous dunk or gives-them-the-lead
triple, Collins punctuates the moment with child-like splendor.
Together, they pretty much break the joy meter whenever
something cool occurs. We need more joy in this sport, and I'm
glad we have those two. It's a match made in heaven, TV volume
- PJ Washington is one of the most underrated players in the
NBA. I was shocked when his name popped up in trade rumors last
season. He's a skilled 4 with shooting chops, ball skills and
enough of a post game to punish smaller defenders when he gets
them. Add in a healthy dose of switchability, and you have a pretty
- Quick hat tip to Cody Martin for securing a bag this offseason
(four years, $32 million). He emerged as the Hornets' best
perimeter defender, knocked down shots at a solid clip (38.4% from
three) and kept the chains moving as a drive-and-kick piece.
- Cheers to another year of Terry Rozier shot-making! He's
probably been overburdened as the shot-maker in the
half-court for Charlotte, but he's on one of the best shooting runs
you haven't heard of. A 38.8% clip from deep on 7.7 attempts — a
blistering 42.1% on spot-ups — over the last three seasons is
nothing to sneeze at.
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: THE DEFENSE
I've said it over the past few seasons with Royce O'Neale in
Utah, and I'll offer a similar sentiment here.
Martin is a good wing defender. But your team has a problem if
he's your best wing defender.
Zooming out, I struggle with the personnel. Mason Plumlee is
mobile and positionally sound, which should give Charlotte a level
of scheme versatility. It's just hard to trust the secondary rim
protection behind him if the Hornets ramp things up, and
it's really difficult to trust the screen
navigation in front of him if they put him in a drop — and that's
in addition to Plumlee not being feared at the rim.
The Hornets were awful defensively under James Borrego last
season, but that wasn't from a lack of effort. We saw drop, saw the
bigs at the level, saw switching, saw some trapping (hi,
late-season Hawks game) and, boy, did they run a ton of zone. None
of it worked well or for very long.
- First, I hope Ball gets well soon. Beyond that, he has to take
a step as a driver and finisher this year.
Whether it's becoming more comfortable seeking contact and getting
to the line, doing a better job of finishing through
contact or cleaning up his footwork to become a more reliable
pull-up or floater threat — something has to pop for him.
- While we're on the health kick, how many games will we see
from Gordon Hayward? Can we get 50?
- I'm not a huge fan of the Hornets' center room behind Plumlee.
I like what Mark Williams is projected to bring, but the non-dunk
finishing seems so far away from him being an effective roll threat
right now. Nick Richards is fine, I suppose; it would just be nice
if the Hornets had a more reliable vet.
LINEUP TO WATCH:
This group only played eight minutes together last season, but
I'm curious to see it with a larger sample.
There's plenty of spacing to work with offensively, which should
open up some spread pick-and-roll opportunities. Switching would be
the calling card because of the collective size and length;
honestly, any lineup in which you can simplify the defensive scheme
and breathe easy is a bonus.
BEST CASE: Play-In Tournament
Steve Clifford teams tend to get a boost in year one. The
transition defense gets better, there are fewer turnovers and the
defensive-rebound rate goes up. If the Hornets are simply a
below-average defense instead of a dreadful one, the offense should
be good enough to get them in the play-in again.
WORST CASE: Bottom of the East
Another unhealthy year from Hayward would make me feel
uncomfortable with the Hornets' half-court offense, particularly
late. And as much as I like the Clifford hire, the defensive
personnel simply isn't good overall. With Ball missing the
beginning of the year with an ankle roll, a slow start wouldn't be
And honestly, how upset would Hornet fans be if they find
themselves in the running for Victor Wembanyama, Scoot Henderson or
one of the Thompson twins? It's hard to call this a "worst" case
within that context.
WHAT TO LIKE: DEFENSIVE PERSONNEL
Whew, buddy, does this team fly around.
Led by Bam Adebayo, the Heat are one of the stingiest,
switchiest teams in basketball. They erase gaps immediately, but
add to the hardship of offenses by also shrinking the floor. They
pinch in early, stunt from everywhere — even the strong side
corner, generally viewed as a no-no — and dare you to beat
It helps that they have the athleticism and collective IQ to
pull this off. Bam Adebayo can guard just about anyone. Jimmy
Butler is a tremendous wing defender, and doubles as one of the
most lethal roamers off the ball.
Kyle Lowry has comfort defending — and taking charges from —
players much larger than him. Caleb Martin can defend either wing
spot, and got considerable reps against Trae Young in last year's
postseason. Victor Oladipo can fly around when upright.
The list goes on and on.
- Adebayo took threes in the preseason, which is objectively
cool. Beyond that, he was more intentional about looking for his
own shot, period. Maybe this is the year things click for him on
- Sign me up for Tyler Herro as a starter. Slotting into more of
an off-ball, attack-the-bent-defense role should lead to a boost in
efficiency. Being surrounded by this much defensive talent should
also make life easier on him.
- Erik Spoelstra. He's the best coach in basketball.
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: BUTLER-ADEBAYO TWO-MAN
Remember the 300 picks stat from the Hawks section? The
Butler-Adebayo two-man game ranked 96th among those 107 duos, with
the Heat barely mustering 0.9 PPP on trips featuring a
Butler-Adebayo pick-and-roll. Handoffs weren't much better (0.92
Because Butler isn't a proven shooter — with respect to his
recent postseason exploits — teams are comfortable ducking under
screens and daring him to pull up. And because Adebayo hasn't been
able to consistently punish wings, there's also a comfort to switch
those actions when necessary.
The "put-a-big-on-Butler" gambit doesn't scare teams either;
we've seen the Bucks and Sixers try it over the past two
Whether it's shooting growth from Butler, Adebayo taking a step
as a creator or getting scheme help by emptying the corner or
running some sort of decoy action to get the defense moving,
something has to open up for this pairing.
- Going from PJ Tucker to Caleb Martin may not be a big deal in
the grand scheme, but the Heat will probably miss Tucker's ability
to take on bulkier matchups. Martin ain't hanging at the 5, and I
do wonder what kind of hit the Heat will take from a rebounding
- As much as the 4 has been discussed for the Heat, it's
probably worth wondering what the backup center situation will look
like. If the end of last season and the preseason is any
indication, Dewayne Dedmon might not be up for the job. Omer
Yurtseven gave the Heat solid minutes last season, but there are
serious defensive questions for him to answer. Nikola Jovic isn't
physically ready for the job yet, though he looks like he'll
be good down the line.
- Staggering should help mitigate some of the concern, but Herro
entering the starting lineup does mean there will be more pressure
on Victor Oladipo and Gabe Vincent to carry the bench.
LINEUP TO WATCH:
Because of injuries and off-court absences, we didn't see much
of this group together last season. A 22-minute sample is almost
criminal, but the intrigue is there because they won those minutes
by 34 points.
There's almost no way that level of dominance holds over a
larger sample, but it's easy to see why that lineup can work.
Plenty of spacing around Butler and Adebayo; plenty of guard
creation from Lowry and Herro. Enough switchability between the
Lowry-Strus-Butler-Adebayo quartet to shield Herro in a sense.
I want to see more of this group.
BEST CASE: No. 1 Seed
The Heat snagged the top seed despite Butler, Adebayo and Lowry
missing a combined 70 games last season. I can't recall the last
time a team led their conference in wins without any of their top
three players appearing in at least 65 games — or roughly 80% of
their games, accounting for lockout or otherwise shortened
Better health from Adebayo, Butler and Lowry should give the
Heat an even higher floor.
WORST CASE: Play-In Tournament
I don't think the Heat are in danger of missing the playoffs
unless absolute catastrophe happens. I do think the strength of the
conference, combined with more regular-season maintenance for Butler (or Lowry for
that matter) could lead to a slip in the standings.
WHAT TO LIKE: SKILLED SIZE
I'll admit to my bias here: show me a team with multiple
6-foot-7-or-taller dudes who can do stuff with the ball and I'll
There isn't a thing Franz Wagner can't do on the offensive end;
he was, at worst, a top-four rookie last season. Newbie Paolo
Banchero is known for his (tough) bucket-getting, but he doubles as
one of the best passers in this draft class.
Wendell Carter Jr. can operate as a post or elbow hub, has
enough on-ball juice to get downhill and has finally taken the
training wheels off as a willing jump shooter. Jonathan Isaac. Mo
Bamba shot 38.1% from three on healthy volume. I'll never stop
believing in Bol Bol.
- There are concerns about their offensive impact (more on that
shortly), but how many teams can field a backcourt duo better than
Markelle Fultz and Jalen Suggs defensively? Five? Is it even that
- I'm kinda here for the Magic's 3-2 zone. If you have that kind
of length, why not deploy it and muck up any of the pretty sets
that opposing offenses want to run?
- For a team that will need as much shooting as possible, I
really think Caleb Houstan will be good for them. I liked what I
saw from him during Summer League.
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: POINT GUARD ROOM
Cole Anthony grew as a player on both ends last year. He's an
underrated rebounder at his position and a budding playmaker. But
so much of his game is driven by his pull-up; it gives me Devonte'
Graham vibes in that sense.
Fultz is a tremendous playmaker, crafty finisher and sturdy
defender at the point of attack. Teams simply don't care about his
jumper, which is a massive problem for a lead guard and an even
bigger one for this particular Magic team.
Suggs was simply not a productive offensive player last season —
not a death sentence at all, but defenses will be giving him
Fultz-like prove-it treatment both on and off the ball.
I don't think any of these players are bad, but there's a
glaring something to pick at with all of
- The good news is the Magic have multiple 6-foot-7-or-taller
players who can make stuff happen. The bad news is because they're
so like-sized, teams will probably feel comfortable switching a lot
of the actions they're involved in. We'll see how well they're able
to navigate that when it pops up.
- It's odd for a team with this kind of size to struggle with
rebounding like they did last season; finishing 23rd in rebound
rate feels underwhelming. Their decision to punt on offensive
rebounding factors into that number the most — they were 27th in
offensive rebound rate and eighth in defensive rebound rate — but I
do worry about this unit when Carter Jr. is off the floor.
- With the way the roster has been built, the
Magic need the off-ball goodness from Terrence Ross
and Gary Harris to grease the wheels offensively. Harris being out
with a torn meniscus puts even more pressure on Ross to
LINEUP TO WATCH: Anthony-Wagner-Banchero-Carter
The Anthony-Wagner-Carter Jr.-Bamba quartet was essentially neutral in 751
minutes last season, an impressive feat considering the team's
overall net rating (minus-8.1, 28th) and the fact that the Magic
only shot 34.7% from three in those minutes. Adding Banchero gives
them a fulcrum to lean on, someone who should help the shot quality
of the other four.
Also, Wagner-Banchero-Carter Jr.-Bamba is just
a massive group to surround Anthony with.
BEST CASE: Play-In Tournament
There is so much length and skilled size on the roster. Even if
you don't believe in post-All-Star numbers — pssst, they were
seventh in defense after the
break last year — there's potential for this to be a solid unit. If
you get Year 2 jumps from Suggs and Wagner and a Rookie-of-the-Year
campaign from Banchero, I honestly wouldn't be shocked by them
WORST CASE: Bottom of the East
There's a real possibility that teams look at the Magic and say,
"Hey, we'll just switch everything and live with tough shots."
Advantage creation and spacing could once again be season-dooming
issues for a team that hasn't been an average offense since the
Obama administration. The first one.
Similar to the Hornets, finishing at the bottom wouldn't be a
bad thing considering what this year's draft class
projects to be.
WHAT TO LIKE: HEALTHY BRADLEY BEAL
We only got 40 games of the Bradley Beal experience last season,
and he wasn't healthy for all of those. It's also telling that a
bad-for-him Beal year was essentially 23-5-7 in a tough offensive
Beal's evolution as a player isn't talked about enough,
honestly. Known as a lethal (movement) shooter entering his draft
year, he's turned himself into a solid playmaker and one of the
most unique drivers in basketball. He's a well-rounded weapon
(With some of the new additions from the summer, hopefully we
get to see more off-ball usage from him.)
- I like the Monte Morris addition for this team. He's gradually
become a more willing shooter, and he simply doesn't make mistakes
with the ball. His partnership with Beal should be a fruitful
- Sign me up for more Deni Avdija. He has to prove it with the
shot, but I don't have many questions about the rest of his game.
He was quietly one of the best wing defenders in the league last
year, and is a pretty smart ball-mover. Here's hoping he has more
opportunities to attack tilted defenses this year.
- Daniel Gafford! He's good! Give him plenty of burn!
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: LINEUP BALANCE
The good news is the Wizards can field a rotation with 10, maybe
11 solid NBA players. The bad news is the Wizards have to sort
through a rotation of 10, maybe 11 solid NBA players — and some of
them have overlapping skill-sets.
This is before getting into their most recent first-round picks
— Corey Kispert (2021) and Johnny Davis (2022). I don't know how
you find time for those guys to grow.
I'm just curious to see how head coach Wes Unseld Jr. doles out
- It's boring, but banking on Beal and Kristaps Porzingis to be
reasonably healthy (65+ games) doesn't feel like the safest bet.
I'd love to see it though.
- I wonder how much scheme versatility this group has
defensively. Porzingis kinda boxes you in because of his
limitations in space.
- Is Beal the only player on the roster that teams have to worry
about playing drop against? How often will non-Beal players get
defenses in rotation?
LINEUP TO WATCH:
To get the most out of Porzingis, you'll need him at the 5.
That'll open up pick-and-pop opportunities for him against most
teams, and allow him to play in a drop more comfortably.
Flanking him with Avdija and Kuzma defensively should bode well.
The Beal-Porzingis two-man game should have plenty of space to work
with. This may also be the best lineup for Avdija to do his
BEST CASE: Play-In Tournament
Beal is one of the NBA's best guards, and Porzingis has shown he
can be a two-way force when healthy. It shouldn't be difficult to
build a competent offense around those two. If the defense can take
a step, nabbing the ninth or 10th seed should definitely be in
WORST CASE: Bottom of the East
More health issues for Porzingis and Beal could tank the
Wizards' playoff/play-in hopes pretty quickly. There's also the
possibility that they aren't able to find continuity with the
pieces they have, leading to an underwhelming product on both ends
of the floor.
Check out our season previews for the Atlantic Division, Northwest Division, Central Division and Pacific Division.